Thursday, June 28, 2007

Telegrams from ALA Part II: Printz Awards

Look! I'm on Brotherhood 2.0! Of course, I'm sitting about 2/3 of the way back in a hall that sat, like, 300 people, so even I can't distinguish my bushy head. But I'm there.

John Green spoke at the Printz Award reception, because he was an honorable mention this year, and his speech was the second most super. The first most super was M.T. Anderson's. In fact, M.T. Anderson was the whole reason I was there, because he astounds me.
I remember book-talking Feed at Woonsocket High School: I started by saying that the story takes place in the near future, and people are getting "feeds" instealled so they can access the internet mentally. That's right: they check e-mail, chat, watch movies, listen to music, get bombarded by banner ads, etc. in their minds.

And the classful of freshmen, who had been sitting there comatose through my description of a book by Jess Mowry and The Bell Jar (which I admit was a long shot, although I said it was like Smashed or with penny loafers and electroshock therapy), reacted instantly with a chorus of "Cool! I want that!" I stared at them in amazement--they wanted the Internet in their brains? -- until finally one boy, sitting in the corner with his desk at an angle that said I am so not one of you, just spat, "Yo. That's whack."

And that sort of silenced them.

Anyway, it wasn't the reaction I was expecting, but in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been surprised.

So M.T. Anderson's speech was so brilliant and poetic that I can't properly summarize it. I hope there's a transcript floating around somewhere. But his point was the racism isn't a thing of the past. He wrote The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. !: The Pox Party because he wanted to demonstrate how the ideas swirling around the American Revolution are still swirling and still relevant. And if you haven't read the book--it does have an intimidating title--you should know that he somehow renders the familiar American history unfamiliar--strange, absurd, exotic, and shocking. It's like a carnivale version of 1776.

He said that historical fiction sometimes makes us feel "safe and righteous": "We seem superior to the dead. For one thing, they're dead. We're alive. We must know something they don't." Then he said that the question we should ask is: "What are we doing that our grandchildren ... will look at and gasp?" And his example of something gasp-worthy was "standardized" tests. He
talked about how his girlfriend worked in an urban school where, during the week of standardized testing, number of students were shot. So how can you compare her kids' scores to the scores of safe, well-fed, comfortable middle class suburban kids? Fire off a couple rounds over their heads and then have them take the test. Then you can make comparisons.

John Green, who was honorable mention for An Abundance of Katherines, talked about the inspiration behind the Arab character in his book, a real-live roommate of his, also named Hassan. He talked about how Hassan used to rant against Fox News coverage of the war in Iraq and told this really funny story about misinterpreted graffiti that I know I'm going to screw up, so you'll just have to wait til a transcript of the speech is posted here.

I think an alternate title for the speech (not that I know what the original title is) could be "Against Narrative," because in the same way that Susan Sontag attacked the idea that images must have to say something in "Against Interpretation," I think John Green attacked the idea that stories have to make sense. He said that the problem with narrative is that we'd rather believe "lies that make sense than truth that doesn't." In other words, by creating believable stories, we make reality less believable--at a time when it's really important to face the truth.

Not that he was really attacking narrative. Just saying that we need to question it. And I may be taking this farther than he did in his speech, but obviously, it got me thinking.

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